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Surfaces: A History

Surfaces: A History

by Joseph A. Amato

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Human beings are surrounded by surfaces: from our skin to faces, to the walls and streets of our homes and cities, to the images, books, and screens of our cultures and civilizations, to the natural world and what we imagine beyond. In this thought-provoking and richly textured book, Joseph A. Amato traces the human relationship with surfaces from the deep


Human beings are surrounded by surfaces: from our skin to faces, to the walls and streets of our homes and cities, to the images, books, and screens of our cultures and civilizations, to the natural world and what we imagine beyond. In this thought-provoking and richly textured book, Joseph A. Amato traces the human relationship with surfaces from the deep history of human evolution, which unfolded across millennia, up to the contemporary world. Fusing his work on Dust and On Foot, he shows how, in the last two centuries, our understanding, creation, control, and manipulation of surfaces has become truly revolutionary—in both scale and volume. With the sweep of grand history matched to existential concerns for the present, he suggests that we have become the surfaces we have made, mastered, and now control, invent, design, and encapsulate our lives. This deeply informed and original narrative, which joins history and anthropology and suggests new routes for epistemology and aesthetics, argues that surfaces are far more than superficial façades of deep inner worlds.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"umans are a living set of natural surfaces...among a world of natural and made surfaces," historian Amato broadly summarizes in this broad mixture of philosophy, history, aesthetics, and narrative. His arc begins in the prehistory of human biology and evolution, moving in grand gestures through the entirety of Western civilization before landing in the modern day. En route, Amato finds occasion to reference nearly every major change or advancement in human society—from Marxism to the invention of synthesized polymers to cave paintings—usually offering a brief analysis linking the advancement to the pervasive and loose idea of surfaces. The extreme historical scope itself is more than a single book could handle, but when tied to such a ubiquitous and woolly concept as "surfaces", the resulting study struggles to become anything more than perfunctory. Adding to this, Amato favors a sweeping lyric voice and grand narrative arches prone to universalizing statements so that specifics of technology or art can be mined for universal, humanist truths. These pop-academic tendencies occasion sporadic insights, and the topic itself is rich with potential (as other thinkers have explored), but generally the text only glances over its own surfaces without reaching any expected intellectual or emotional payoff. B&w illus. (May)
CHOICE - J. P. Davis

"Amato's creativity and breadth of analysis ensures Surfaces a prominent place in environmental history. . . . Highly recommended."
Practical Thinking - Robert Brusic

"Amato presents a thoughtful and persuasive case about the omnipresent place, role, power and importance of surfaces."

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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By Joseph A. Amato


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95443-4


We Are Surfaces and Surfaces Are Us

The body is our general medium for having a world.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY, Phenomenology of Perception

So boundaries—so the physical structures that constituted them, membranes, skins—were crucial. First, they held the animal's substance in, and the rest of the world out. Second, by virtue of being located at the animal's surface, they formed a frontier: the frontier at which the outside world impacted the animal, and across which exchanges of matter and energy and information could take place.

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY, The History of the Mind

SURFACES ARE NATURE'S INSTRUCTORS. Circles, arcs, and angles, lines and grids, crystals and jumbles, they reflect light and cast shadows; reveal movement and aging; indicate size, shape, form, slope, and color; and create texture. They bloom afresh, age continually, and die. They fly up and dive in, breaking the surfaces of water, land, and sky. They signal edibility, danger, and chances for reproduction. They indicate pain and pleasure, friend and foe, dead and alive, and whole ranges of similarities, contrasts, and polarities. The face of things individual and collective, they reach deep into our brains. They prompt reactions, spawn images, and evoke emotions and moods. Although, in dark and wintry Minnesota, I commonly hear about depression caused by the absence of sunlight, one local doctor speculates that a winter without a solid coat of snow exposes people to a blandly colored landscape of yellows, browns, and grays, causing cases of depression.

Surfaces, as we will see in the next two chapters and across this book, do still more. They declare what is light and shadowy, near and far, what is at hand and imminent and what is remote in space and time. Beyond the forms and patterns they present, they offer the most immediate classifications and also the first clues to what is within things. To early, traditional, and even modern humanity, they testify to the whole and the greatness of creation and creator. To most secular contemporary people, the face of things testifies to the bountiful work of the human mind and invention. In nature, we all perceive the line, the grid, the curve, the spiral, the pattern, the texture, the gloss, and the importance of the color of things—and most of us, like a gullible Polonius, can be tempted to espy in passing clouds whatever Hamlet alternately and mockingly proposes we see.

Rocks and minerals testify to the presence of crusts and layers, basalts and granites. Collections of shells and crystals (such as the George III collections in the British Museum) evince a nature responsive to light and rich in sizes, shapes, curves, whorls, colors, and patterns. Fossils, which speak of life past, represent a range of creatures, from those with small exoskeletons (insects, turtles, and mollusks) to those with large endoskeletons (mammals). They are rich in meaning for paleontologists and archaeologists, who read them as chapters and turning points in life's oldest book.

Seeds, too, whose mysteries lie wrapped within, sprout as testimonies to fertile soil and nature's elaborate forms and generous, even joyous, flowering varieties. The small carob seed, once mistakenly thought to be consistent in weight, was once used to measure gold (thus the word karat). Hitchhiking burrs still catch rides as best they can on the passing fabric of clothing and animal hides. Twirling maple-seed propellers, ever the delight of children, ride gentle winds. Coconuts cross thousands of miles of ocean to land on new shores. Feathers, leaves, flowers, and hides of all sizes, shapes, colors, and textures are like tongues speaking many revelations, a Pentecost for human beings' perceptions and conceptions. Like sapient bees, humans build the honeycomb of learning from what they gather, accumulate, and store.

Surfaces present us with and come as part of wholes, configurations, and contexts. They form and belong to the composition, the borders, and the tightness, knit, and bind of things and objects. They blurt out and craftily conceal similarities and differences. Surfaces make contrasts, juxtapositions, and dualities. They establish dimensions, lend spatial and linear form, and have tops and bottoms and ends and edges. They move, change, and progress through states of development. By the lights of my handmade phenomenological approach, surfaces define our location, condition, situation, and position, among other things. Surfaces—in the form of tops, covers, shells, sheaths, barks, rinds, and other coverings and exteriors—delineate individual objects and represent whole environments, horizons, and seasons. As coverings and epidermises—homogeneous and heterogeneous, permeable and impermeable, permanent and transient—surfaces constitute an immediate and tangible geography of the world and a prima facie index of all its different things.

Surfaces are the boundaries of both natural and human environments. They are both the great fact and the mirror of nature, being, and what we humans make and who we are. Surfaces provoke our first sensations, evoke our initial reactions, and become the stuff of our comparisons, analogies, images, and representations. Surfaces permit instantaneous, if sometimes only rough and provisional, classifications. They allow us to identify, to name, and, from a very early age, to associate actions with actors, and movements with sources and consequences. All this, learned from surfaces, has no end of importance for memory, judgment, and will.

Surfaces are the points of connection and interactions among body, things, and world. Surfaces, as I quoted Gibson saying in the introduction, are where the action is. They send us sounds and smells; offer touch and feel; direct and shape perceptions; elicit attention; excite expectations; and stimulate urges. Arousing our curiosity and even our concentrated stare, they lure our probing hands. At the same time, surfaces both reveal and veil things. They make the obvious, prima facie present impeachable, and make a judgment evident. At the same time, surfaces declare what is within: its accessibility, its taboos and prohibitions. Surfaces can be rife with multiple signals to our attention and conflicting messages about their purpose. Things and people with differing faces both express ambiguity and dangerously entice us.

Humans, with varying skills and widely varying success, spend a lifetime reading surfaces. First are the sucking lips of the infant and the nipple of the breastfeeding mother. Later infants progress to faces: the lips, eyes, complexion, smell, and voices of those who feed and cuddle them. The human face, followed by human gestures, composes a rudimentary text, and lessons learned from it provide people with a vital social compass for a lifetime. Individuals read the world and their place in it in the faces of others, which can display threat, friendliness, anger, uncertainty, weariness, misery, and so much more. Long before humans had language, they made sounds and showed faces that communicated shared circumstances, situations, plans, and dependence. The eyes, when not made opaque by disability, read with incalculable velocity the slope of a nose, the set of another's eyes, the point of toes, or the flow of an opulent dress down and along the turn of a staircase. The most gracious members of royal courts were often the most superficial of creatures; they could read status, but not the heart, and thus made vanity the antithetical surface of wise, true, and sincere inner depths.

Surely, humans conduct lives in and by surfaces. They encounter them bodily—with the step and shuffle of their feet, the extension of arms, grasp of hands, the grip and rub of fingers, the scratch of nails, and, to supplement a long list, the purse and lick of lips, the flick of a tasting tongue, and the cutting and grinding of teeth. Individuals perceive, conceive, create, imagine, and act through the medium of surfaces. Surfaces continually deliver materials to the mind. Transmitted as images along the way—via the nerve corridors and stations of the body—surfaces come into intelligence, imagination, and judgment, and memory for identification, enhancement, refinement, and synthesis into thought. And insofar as they are transformed by the craft of thinking, things recognized, identified, named, represented, and made into symbols become units of reflection and memory. Facts, hypotheses, conjectures, wishes, dreams, and hopes further interpret the surfaces of the world.

It would be a profound error to believe that appearances always deceive—fronti nulla fides!—or that every window is a trompe l'oeil. Perhaps the contrary is closer to the truth, for by survival, reflex, learning, habit, craft, and skill, people trust, if not universally, the information given to them by the single and multiple faces and bodies of others and the myriad facades and outer covers of the natural world. If these sources do not reveal the full truth or complexity of things, in all likelihood they still offer valuables clues and leads. Eye and hand first encounter and finally represent and design their findings. So much human experience, learning, and art begins and ends on the surface. The hunter reads tracks and broken brush; the farmer picks up, rubs, strains, and drains his soil; and cooks and craftsmen begin and complete their tasks by appraising, measuring, and touching the surfaces they work. The sailor observes the waves and wind, just as the doctor examines the patient's posture and complexion, and the counselor watches the movement of eyes and hands to diagnose the workings of a mind. A geologist is trained to read contours, beds of rock, types of erosion, and individual rocks to discern the internal conditions, forces, and processes that define topographies and reveal deep inner histories. Indeed, surfaces are the chalkboard of first learning, the mind's developing sketch of the covers of objects. They teach with the speed of light, the glance of an eye, and the thrust of a hand. They instructed organisms billions of years before the recent appearance of humans, two or so million years ago, and before anything resembling the one-hundred-thousand-year-old Homo sapiens brain—with its capacity for symbolization and metaphorization and its ability to analogize, connect, imagine, suppose, conjecture, and even believe in what can't be seen or touched in present time and location—had developed.

Humans' first knowledge of things, objects, contexts, and conditions can emerge as singular points of light, color, and motion, or can be cast up (as in the work of wind and water and time itself) as mixed jumbles and juxtapositions suggesting no immediate forms or orders of perception. Surfaces, whether they provide garbled or clear epiphanies, evoke, to use Aristotle's phrase, koine aesthesis (common sensation) "as the awareness of external objects through the coming of together of special sensations (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), that is perception of 'things' and their varying states and modes. This common sensation is what enables humans to perceive 'movement, rest, number, shape and size, such being not special to any one sense but common to all.'" Additional philosophical enhancement suggests that surfaces render both concrete images and abstract symbols. They provide sources for concepts, metaphors, and predictions of what lies before, within, and in the past and times to come. Needless to say, surfaces trigger past associations of multiple types and learning. They also call up stereotypes and occasion instant parody, coarse satire, and even subtle irony by the contrast of big and little, strong and weak, cause and effect, and all that the keen eye deciphers that is asymmetrical, disproportionate, or incommensurate. Humans take delight in finding complex shells on a beach and, in their advance stages of sorting things out, puzzling over optical illusions, as Wittgenstein did, deciding how a single now-famous sketch could be seen as a duck or as a rabbit.

The human mind finds no analogue to itself in other animals. The mind is stunning not only because of the amount of world it brings into itself, but also because of the diverse and complex processes it integrates into its thought, knowledge, judgment, and vision. The mind is amazing in its capacity to turn things into speculative coinage and leap with metaphor and analogy between realms of the real and the imagined. It turns surfaces themselves into images of and thoughts about its transactions with the world, and its wishes beyond the world.


The outer world comes to us through sensations and senses. And — admittedly simplifying immensely complex orders and interrelations of perception and conception—sensations are joined and fused to past experience and present intentions. Surfaces and the things they stand for are, by comparison of like and unlike, fashioned into images and ideas. Sensations have and are given the dress of things, objects, and landscapes. Often embedded in pleasures and pains, they are conducted through the gates of expectation, caution, fear, wish, despair, and hope. Once formed into images and representations, surfaces become keys and corridors of perception, signaling immediate reactions, eliciting habitual responses, exciting associations, and awakening and establishing memory. All this explains, so to speak, why in these clothes in that room I become that person.

Sensations come through our skin, eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. With millions of sensory receptors dedicated to registering what's happening on the body's surface, skin signals information from and reaction to both our interior and exterior worlds. The vast majority of skin receptors are devoted to recording pain from the surface of the skin, as well as from the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems. The scraping of an arm, the itch of a hand, the prick of finger, or a sudden gasp for air alerts an individual to imminent danger. The stomp of a foot tells the walker about the solidity of a surface, just as a jostle from a familiar hip reminds one of a lifetime of walking together.

So sensations, which accompany the presentations of surfaces, things, and means, vitalize attention and establish perception. In turn, instantly transformed or developed into images, surfaces awake and engage minds, making experiences. The fakir makes an audience cringe by putting pins through himself at will. He may have retrained his mind so that he does not associate memories of pain with piercing the skin, but the more common lot of humanity are not so trained—we cannot launder a certain shirt or see a color without memory. One need not be an aesthete, learned in the arts of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, to know that a set of surfaces can form doorways into youthful days or make us nervous about tomorrow's events.

The body anchors us in being. We superficially identify ourselves by the face we see in our mirror. Thinning hair and a bristly beard turning whiter with the years signal mortality. Far more disconcerting are bouts of dizziness that rob surfaces around us of their solidity. The self-monitoring vestibular system orients us to our position and movement in space, and disruption of its function causes such dizziness. Composed of two distinct organs—the semicircular ear canal and the otolith in the inner ear—the vestibular system enables the subtle balance of a skater on ice and a gymnast on a beam, as well as the more modest but necessary acts of standing and going up and down stairs.

Our ability to move nearly instantaneously, in any given context, depends on an ability to navigate among surfaces, to assign them dimensions, direction, and movement, and to attribute real and possible causes and effects.


The eye and the hand best allow us to explore, know, and make the world. The full formation of both depended on bipedalism. Freeing hands for use and development and lifting eyes and face from the ground, bipedalism put humans in fuller micro- and macrocosmic contact with the faces of the world. Working in tandem, eye and hand created a different creature who forever toggles between the tactile and immediate surfaces of touch and the vision of distant and abstract landscapes.

Excerpted from Surfaces by Joseph A. Amato. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joseph A. Amato is Emeritus Professor of History at Southwest Minnesota State University. He is the author of Dust (UC Press), On Foot: A History of Walking, Victims and Values: A History and Philosophy of Suffering, Rethinking Home: A Case for Local History (UC Press), and Jacob’s Well: A Case for Family History.

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